Leslie Phillips turns 97 today. Alice Pitman speaks to him about his colourful and varied eighty-year career, which has been so much more than a few ‘Ding dongs’...
I am having quite possibly the worst cup of coffee of my life in the bar at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand with the remarkable Leslie Phillips, just prior to his appearance at an Oldie lunch.
He takes a sip from his cup and pulls a face. ‘Sorry about the coffee,’ he murmurs, as though it is his fault.
Leslie Phillips is now 97, though he looks ten years younger. He is nattily besuited, an added touch of jauntiness provided by a pink comb protruding from his inside jacket pocket. I decide that his well-preserved appearance must be due in part to the fact that his mind has been kept active, for apart from a spell in the army during the war, he has not stopped acting since he took to the stage as a child actor in 1935.
His career has seen him in over a hundred films and two hundred theatrical roles. He has appeared alongside a roll call of stars, from Dame Anna Neagle to John Malkovich and, more recently, Peter O’Toole, in the much-acclaimed film Venus.
It’s a far cry from his impoverished working-class Tottenham origins, the third and last child of Frederick (whose work in a filthy gas cooker factory contributed to his premature death at the age of 44) and Cecilia, to whom he dedicated a recent award. ‘I was so surprised to get it, I hadn’t prepared a speech. When I got up to the microphone, all I could think of was my mother.’ The acceptance speech created quite a stir. After commencing with his trademark comic lecherous catchphrase ‘Hello!’, he continued: ‘In 1993, at the age of 92...’ The audience laughed approvingly, thinking he was about to launch into an amusing story about himself. He went on, ‘...my mother was mugged in the street and killed. She would have been very proud of me tonight.’ He held up the trophy and walked off to a stunned silence.
‘It went from absolute high comedy to tragedy, but life’s like that, don’t you think?’ Leslie says. ‘My sister was so shaken by my mother’s death she only outlived her by six months. You never get over something like that.’
His mother first introduced eleven- year-old Leslie to the theatre by taking him along to an audition for the Italia Conti Stage School.
He received elocution lessons to rid him of his broad Cockney accent, seen in those days as a major impediment to an aspiring actor.
‘All my friends and family were Londoners, real Cockneys, my brother is still a Cockney. They found it hard to recognise the new me, though my voice has without doubt played an enormous part in my success.’
By the age of fourteen Leslie was working in West End plays alongside such luminaries as Vivien Leigh, Lilli Palmer (on whom he had a tremendous crush), and Rex Harrison (‘something of a role model for me, though I could never have reached anything like his heights in the philandering department’).
What was Vivien Leigh like?
‘Oh, she was wonderful. She had a special way of saying my name...
She would draw out the last syllable: “Les-liee, daarling...’” Laurence Olivier would come to the theatre in his Fleet Air Arm uniform. ‘He was delightful. I bumped into him again years later when I was acting in The Cherry Orchard. He would come to the rehearsals, sidle up to me, and say, “Leslie, a few tips...’”
During the war, Leslie was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry, but was declared unfit for service just before D-Day. ‘I had a nervous illness which caused paralysis if I undertook any sudden or violent movement.’ His pal Johnny Mould took over his platoon, and was one of the first to be killed in France. The burden Leslie felt at being left behind was compounded by the news that his brother had been badly injured in Italy. ‘I still feel tremendous guilt, although there was nothing I could do about it. I suppose it was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.’
After the war he resumed his theatrical career, also becoming a familiar voice on radio. The three early Carry Ons, followed by the Doctor series of films, established his reputation for playing upper-class silly asses and womanising smoothies.
In Carry On Nurse (1959) we first heard him utter the words, ‘Ding dong’. Catch- phrases such as ‘Lumme’ and ‘Well, hello’ soon followed. ‘Even today, I am regularly ding-donged as I walk around London,’ he says, seeming both pleased and slightly annoyed.
I wonder if, despite success in more serious roles in the latter half of his career (Falstaff at the RSC, Empire of the Sun, Out of Africa), it bothers him that he will be forever associated with English stereotype comic roles of the 1950s and 60s?
‘It did at one time, as it was only a very small part of my career - and we never got any money from them. They exported these films all around the world - Carry On Nurse went on to become the biggest grossing British film ever in the US - but not one penny went to the poor bloody actors...’
His private life has been suitably colourful. He married Penelope Bartley in 1948, producing four children. As his career took off, long absences away from home meant they inevitably grew apart. ‘I was guilty of neglecting the family a little, but she made no objection to the money coming in...’ He began an affair with Caroline Mortimer, stepdaughter of John Mortimer, and Bartley divorced him in 1965. He and Mortimer split after nine years. He kept in close contact with Penny Bartley until her death in a fire in 1982. Shortly after, Leslie married Angela Scoular, a former Bond girl, whom he had met while working on a play in 1976.
We discuss his recent autobiography Hello, part show-business gossip, part confessional, interspersed with endearing domestic details about much-loved dogs, cats and motorcars. There’s also the occasional smattering of sex, the more explicit passages sitting oddly alongside prosaic accounts of films and West End plays.
When I ask him about the famous people he has worked with over the years, Leslie worries that he might come across as a bit of a name-dropper.
Among those he was especially fond of were Kay Kendall, Kenneth Williams, Ronnie Barker, Joan Plowright, Denholm Elliott and Terry-Thomas.
And those he disliked? Roy Boulting - ‘The only man I have ever physically hit’ - and Sir Seymour Hicks: ‘An overbearing shit.’
What film has he enjoyed working on the most?
‘Oh, Venus, I think. I had some wonderful lines. I’m very proud of that film.’
Was Peter O’Toole fun to work with?
He hesitates. ‘I wouldn’t say fun. Powerful. He’s a great actor, with a very strong personality and a sense of humour. If I was doing a scene on- camera and he was off camera, he’d choose that moment to send me up.’
He hopes Venus might open a few doors for him. He’ll consider anything as long as it’s good: comedy or drama, he doesn’t mind.
‘I like to play villains best... Bastards,’ he says, with a mock-wicked leer. ‘I don’t look like a villain, you see, so it’s quite nice.’
So no plans to retire then?
‘I don’t consider it a word in my vocabulary.’
This interview was originally published in The Oldie in 2007